According to the papal foundation Aid to the Church in need, 38 countries around the world see regular, serious violations of religious freedom. Among those 38, 23 see real persecution, especially of Christians of various denominations, but not only them. ACN’s 2016 biennial report was recently presented to the press in Rome; according to the group’s Italy director, Alessandro Monteduro, the right to religious freedom is not in good health in the world, in fact, “there is even a worsening of the situation in 11 of these 23 countries. And for seven of these, now it is impossible even to say ‘worse,’ given that the situation was already dire before.” Those seven countries are Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Nigeria (the north of the country), and North Korea.
In the Middle East and Africa, the report emphasizes, there is an Islamic “hyper-extremism” beyond the activities of the Islamic State, that has never before been so radicalized and violent. Nations identified in the report as having significant restrictions on religious freedom include Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bhutan, Brunei, Egypt, Iran, Kazakhstan, Laos, Maldives, Mauritania, Qatar, Tajikistan, Turkey, Ukraine and Vietnam; those with active situations of religious persecution include Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Burma, North Korea, China, Eritrea, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tanzania, Palestinian Territories, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Yemen.
ACN estimated that fully half of the inhabitants of the globe do not enjoy full religious freedom.
Catholic World Report examined the report with Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, international president of Aid to the Church in Need.
CWR: Cardinal Piacenza, how could you define the international situation of the persecution of Christians and limits on religious liberty? Are things getting worse or getting better, in your view?
Cardinal Mauro Piacenza: From my point of view, nobody can say because in certain zones, it is getting worse, and in other zones, there are signs of improvement. Therefore, I would say that saying a definitive word on this is not possible. There is an alternating—some groups of countries are experiencing a resurgence [in persecution], whereas for others it’s slightly (slightly, we must use this adverb) less.
CWR: Your Eminence, would you say governments and politicians are being sensitive enough to these situations of persecution?
Cardinal Piacenza: I believe so. Politics, little by little, is becoming a bit more sensitive. In a theoretical sense, I would say yes, because it would brutal [for governments to] not make certain statements. But then on the practical level of concrete decisions to be made, the policies could be stronger, I believe.
CWR: Some have the impression that among Catholics there is a bit of timidity to speak about these limits on religious freedom or persecution of Christians, or they just do not seem to care much. Do you believe there are grounds for this impression?
Cardinal Piacenza: Sometimes, in certain places and in certain circles—and we cannot generalize because these things are too complex—it seems some are more interested in pacifism than peace, and therefore, in some way, seem to diminish the reality that our brothers and sisters are giving their blood as witnesses of the faith. On the other hand, this is a fact: the expansion of Christianity was mainly [due to] the testimony, the spreading those rays of the Gospel that are the first immediate apostolate. Then we must also bear in mind that we must enlighten minds, throw a beam of light on the truth of the faith, and show consistency with our beliefs that never becomes arrogance. The testimony offered—this is the trump card that Christianity has played for 2,000 years.
CWR: Pope Francis’ has made many strong statements against religious extremism. In your opinion, are these words having an impact? If so, what is that impact?
Cardinal Piacenza: As for religious extremism, the Pope—of course—fulfills the demands of the moment, the need of the hour, he speaks as a father would. And thank goodness he does, and so often. Then we have to keep in mind this point: some sometimes confuse the entirety of the testimony of faith with the fundamentalism in the negative sense of the word, which becomes intolerance towards others, arrogance, violence, oppression. We are to remember that we are called to testify to our faith, theologically, morally, dogmatically. The Lord wishes this, but we are to do so credibly, showing His love, His heart.
CWR: Looking at the world map of violations of religious freedom, it is easy to note that many violations and persecutions take place in countries of Islamic culture and traditions.
Cardinal Piacenza: We must observe that the problem sometimes is on a political level, a very ideological, political level. Take for example North Korea, where the persecution of any religion is a fact of political [origins], ideological. Then there are countries where religion is an aspect of life so all-encompassing that the principles of faith of a religion are appropriated also by civil law, to which all without distinction must [adhere]. And this then becomes a real violence aside from physical violence—we also think of the enormous damage of psychological, mental, moral, and spiritual violence, which destroy people and prevent free and peaceful witness of their faith.
CWR: Many believe that the Church at this time has a too soft approach, too accommodating, in the dialogue with Islam. What do you say?
Cardinal Piacenza: It depends. Sometimes, we see tolerance in ways that make it unclear to understand. I think the best thing is to be respectful towards all other people, but at the same time not lose our own identity. This does not mean to be harsh, but clear, so that dialogue must always be based on truth. Truth in love, obviously. Then, we must be very careful to not be misunderstood. Yes, there are things we hope to achieve on a higher scale, but we can do the little, personal things. We can foster our relationships with individual Muslims, which can be much more relaxed. In this way, we are not denying anyone and we give our attention to all. We must be wise.
CWR: In the Islamic world, their idea of freedom of religion is rather different than ours. Given this, is it possible to have authentic and effective dialogue with Islam?
Cardinal Piacenza: First of all, it is not really possible to say simply “the Islamic world.” It is a very large world, and with many intricacies. Also, it is difficult to identify the authority. There’s not a supreme authority with which to establish dialogue that you can then expand on all fronts. It is difficult to find, because the structuring [of Islam] is different.
CWR: Among the countries engaging in religious persecution according to Aid to the Church in Need is a very populated and important country: China. There is talk of a future agreement with this nation and the Holy See. Will it take into consideration this report released by ACN on religious liberty restrictions?
Cardinal Piacenza: I think simply that the China-Vatican relationship is very delicate. We must have faith, though certainly it takes a lot of patience, because we are talking about very different worlds and situations, behind which there are very tormented stories, at least [from the perspective of] the Catholic Church, which in China has a very glorious missionary past. But there have also been many misunderstandings, as if the Catholic Church and Christianity in general had hegemonic ambitions, so there are suspicions that there have solidified with the passage of time.
The good will is there on both sides, but we must proceed with respect for all, for those who suffer, to those who wait. You cannot think to arrive immediately at great solutions, but to proceed step by step to greater understanding, and thus to something positive.